Sunday, 20 March 2011

St George's Day

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has recently called (again) for St. George's Day to be celebrated as an English national holiday.

Personally I've never paid a great deal of attention to saint's days - I guess mainly because I wasn't raised as an Anglican or a Catholic, or born in Wales or Ireland where people generally seem to have a stronger national affinity to their patron saints.  I didn't even know St. George's Day was on the 23rd April - I had to ask my Welsh wife!

As I've written elsewhere, I have an uneasy relationship with the traditional Christian (or at least Catholic) concept of "sainthood", although I do think it's good to remember and celebrate past Christians who have set a particularly good example by their character and conduct and whose lives we can still learn from.

I also like the idea of having a specifically English holiday and I do think our English national identity should be celebrated.  It seems a terrible shame that our national flag - the St George's Cross - is so often associated with racism and the BNP.  Englishness should not be something to be ashamed of - instead, like any nationality or culture it should be celebrated: not in competition with others, or at their expense, but as one culture among many which is special to us because its ours!  This kind of nationalism is secure in itself and can also celebrate, appreciate and welcome others.  To my mind this is the best antidote to the arrogant and insecure nationalism of the BNP and others, which feels so threatened by "foreigners", at least in part because it is so unsure of itself.

So what about St. George's Day then?  Who was St. George and what are we celebrating?  Most people know of him as the dragon-slayer, who killed the dragon to rescue the princess in typical fairy-tale fashion.  In less typical fairy-tale fashion, the citizens of the town which was being terrorised by this dragon consequently converted to Christianity in gratitude for St. George's brave act of heroism.  This story of course is shrouded in myth, but the true story of St. George (if it is true - it seems a little hard to tell!) may be no less interesting:

St. George was a Christian and a soldier in the Roman army who advanced to the rank of Tribunus, before the Emperor Diocletian ordered all Christians in the army to convert to paganism.  George refused, despite being offered various bribes and inducements, and remained outspoken in his devotion to Christ.  After exhausting all other avenues, Diocletian had him heavily tortured and then executed by decapitation.  Before being executed, George took the opportunity to give all his wealth to the poor.

Apart from his martyrdom, part of George's appeal as a patron saint was undoubtedly due to his military connections, and visions of him were said to have appeared to various troops during various military campaigns, particularly during the Crusades.  He is unfortunately now heavily associated with the Crusades, especially since his flag was worn by the English Crusaders (who had adopted it some years previously).  For this reason, I would happily replace St. George as English patron saint - if there were someone obvious to replace him with.  Since this is not the case however, and in any case we would be extremely unlikely to get universal agreement about this, it seems to me that the best option is to continue to celebrate what is good about St. George, but with humility regarding our past mistakes.


  1. If you want an alternative saint then the only serious contender is St Alban, who was martyred at Verulamium (now St Albans) and was reputedly the first person in England to be martyred for his/her faith. His existence is also considerably better documented than St George (George may not have existed at all, but instead may be a word-of-mouth amalgam of a number of different people and/or legends from the Near East).

    Personally though I see no problem with St George and he probably better fits with the multi-cultural agenda.

  2. Yeah - St. Alban would do for me - although he also seems to be mainly famous for his martyrdom. It would be nice to have a patron saint whose life we could celebrate, not just the manner in which he or she died!

    In terms of multi-culturalism - I guess St. George is good from that point of view in that he wasn't English, never lived here, and was venerated all over Europe and beyond. But I do think the St. George's cross / Crusades association works against that somewhat, and if the idea is to celebrate Englishness, then perhaps a truly English saint (e.g. St Alban) would be more appropriate?


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